An Answer to Trump: Could the Civil War Have Been Avoided? by Ivan Eland

The Civil War could probably have been avoided, but President Lincoln didn’t try very hard to do so. From Ivan Eland at

Well, OK, I guess the president learned his American history at Trump University. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, he recently seemingly confused Andrew Jackson’s behavior during the nullification crisis in 1832 with the Civil War, which didn’t occur until 16 years after Jackson died in 1861. The two events do have some similarity – with Jackson’s threatening to use force against South Carolina for trying to nullify federal tariff law and threatening to secede from the union (nullification of federal laws writ large) being antecedent to southern states, led by South Carolina, seceding after Abraham Lincoln got elected in 1860 on the Republican platform of stanching slavery’s expansion westward. Trump, perhaps reflecting his own “tough guy” negotiating tactics, seemingly believes that the Civil War could have been avoided by Jackson, Trump’s favorite president because he was also an angry populist, working things out.

Yet despite Trump’s fuzziness on details, he sometimes can intuitively bring up legitimate questions that the establishment fails to ask (for example, why does the United States continue to pledge to defend rich allies who now could more than afford to defend themselves against usually poorer neighbors). In the interview with the Examiner, Trump queried: “Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Of course, the standard nationalistic historical narrative in American school textbooks enshrines Abraham Lincoln as a demi-god who saved the union and freed the slaves. Any questioning of this equally questionable version of history leads to suspicions of Confederate flag-waving sympathies or even racism. As a descendent of Quakers from a blue Northern state (both in 1861 and oftentimes now), my criticism of Lincoln comes from the other direction.

Was the worst war in American history – which killed 750,000 troops on both sides, including 40,000 African American soldiers, and 100,000 civilians – really worth it to give slaves only nominal freedom and another century of heavy oppression at the hands of bitter Southern whites? Martin Luther King said, with only a little exaggeration, that a form of slavery still existed at the time of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. After the war, the white South enacted black codes, which required “freed slaves” to work for their former masters for a pittance, a system of vagrancy laws under which African Americans were arrested and had to work off their sentences, and Jim Crow segregation of the races. If all this newfound “freedom” wasn’t enough, white Southerners, angry at having lost the war, resorted to terrorism against African Americans through attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilante groups. In short, the white Southern resentment over losing the war exacerbated the American racial divide, which continues today.

To continue reading: An Answer to Trump: Could the Civil War Have Been Avoided?


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